“RoboCop” (2014) ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earl Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, and Samuel L. Jackson
Written by: Joshua Zetumer, based on characters created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Directed by: Jose Padilha
**CAUTION- POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
The original “RoboCop”, while revered by many, was a dreadful chore to watch. It’s an overindulging film that thinks it’s saying something about the world we’re in, but is too dumb to know better. The message, if there was any, was lost soon after the first limb was shredded. Director Paul Verhoeven has often believed with his films that he’s ahead of the curve- I can’t deny that his films have been innovative, and even groundbreaking at times, but always for silly reasons. The first “RoboCop” had unprecedented and copious amounts of violence, “Total Recall” left us with a new ‘mammary arrangement’ as the most memorable scene, and “Basic Instinct” wore out multiple VCRs as a result of one leg-crossing moment. Verhoeven’s “cynicism as satire” angle never quite hit, and his “RoboCop” fails as a result. This isn’t a review of the 1987 version, however- Jose Padilha’s remake is a sleeker, smarter, and overall better film than the predecessor, hitting the marks that the original missed.
Joel Kinnaman (TV’s “The Killing”) is well-cast as Alex Murphy, an undercover detective for the Detroit PD who’s hot on the trail of Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), a known drug lord. Conveniently, Murphy “gets too close” and becomes a target. Vallon and two corrupt officers then plot to eliminate Alex by planting a ‘device’ in his car- right in front of his home. It’s a devious action- for it clearly could have taken out his wife and child (although it does neither, nor does it seen to damage the house).
Alex is not so lucky- with burns all over his body and amputated limbs, he has no quality of life. Luckily for him, OmniCorp founder Raymond Sellers (Keaton- remember him?) wants to ‘help’. They’ve been looking to win over public opinion to put their robots in harm’s way and not people. Of course, public opinion contends that because robots don’t have emotion, they can’t operate with the difficult discernment required of soldiers and/or cops. This means they need Alex. With his wife’s (Cornish) reluctant permission, Sellers and Dr. Dennett Norton (Oldman, in another film-grounding performance) advance the company’s cybernetics technology to merge Alex’s conscience with a robot suit, thus making him the world’s first ‘cyborg’.
What could have turned out silly (like the original) is actually given some resonance with this new film. Although we aren’t given much screen time with Alex and his family pre-explosion, I loved that the filmmakers decided to flesh out the scenes introducing him as RoboCop. We get glimpses of blood-cleansing and cranial-computer chip fusion that are both difficult to watch but also plausible. Padilha wisely allows these first scenes upon Alex’s re-awakening to ‘walk’ a bit, and it gives the entire process a depth we don’t expect from this ‘type’ of film. It encourages us to explore this whole concept and ask interesting questions, which is what good science-fiction should do.
What questions are these, you ask? For beginners, Clara’s decision is a would-be first; millions upon millions have had to make end-of-life decisions for their spouses, but she’s the first one that has to consider allowing her spouse to become something else- a cyborg. Could we accept our loved ones in a state like RoboCop Alex? Is it really enough just to have someone exist, or do you need all of them, including their personality, to love them? Also, where would the society in “RoboCop” draw the line? Like all technologies, it would likely become more accessible to people, including in the home. Could a dying Fido last longer in a ‘RoboDog’ apparatus? Should Fido last longer?
Intentionally or not, “RoboCop” explored the willingness of our brains to accept outside, or ‘robotic’ influences. Alex is ‘controlled’ by OmniCorp, but his brain spends plenty of time trying to override the programming. Is it possible that the electrical and chemical activity in our wildly complex brains would be able to accept another system, or would it continue to stay its’ staunchly autonomic self?
On top of that, Samuel L. Jackson’s fanatic talk-show host of a character throws out words like ‘pacify’ and ‘safe’. These catchy, focus-group tested words, used to encourage viewers, support Sellers and OmniCorp’s push to remove government restrictions. Jackson’s portrayal may remind you of the various talking head blowhards on TV now. These personalities are not interested in journalism; instead they push a veiled, business-oriented agenda, which shines through in the character’s final screen moments.
Do you see what I mean? “RoboCop” is supposed to be a dumb remake of a dumb movie, right? We should never expect to take ideas from this, or think about it at all more than five minutes after the credits roll, right? I suspect the difference this time around involved bright, creative people like Padilha and the writer (writers?) seeing something deeper within the framework of the original film, then deciding to extrapolate. The result is a surprisingly thoughtful, smart, and almost prescient science-fiction movie- not at all a dumb action film. It’s the type of film that should be remade- the original is bad, and they made it better. If only all remakes cared to be so thoughtful.